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UN panel calls for major overhaul of peacekeeping operations

Report also suggests peacekeeping ops have too often been called upon at expense of conflict prevention and mediation

United Nations peacekeeping forces are slow to respond to crises, have inadequate resources to make a significant difference, and have too often been tasked with being the front line for solving intractable political conflict, a U.N. panel said on Tuesday, in the first such review of peacekeeping operations in more than a decade.

The report, a summary of which was publicly released on Tuesday, was the result of seven months of work by an independent panel tasked with recommending a series of reforms for the overstretched operations that have struggled to effectively deal with a growing number of global crises.

“Reliance on ad hoc solutions for rapidly deploying new missions and for crisis response has limited the timeliness and effectiveness of international response,” the report said, calling for a “vanguard capability” that could be equipped to more readily begin new missions or bolster existing ones.

The panel also recommended that a new deputy Secretary-General position be created in the U.N., reporting to the Secretary-General, which would be in charge of all peacekeeping operations worldwide.

There are more than 125,000 U.N. peacekeepers currently operating worldwide, an all-time high since operations began in 1948, lending some urgency to the report's recommendation that the U.N. adopt a number major changes, both through an internal reorganization of its peacekeeping operations and in asking for additional resources from the member nations that provide forces.

“There is no one silver bullet that will solve all the flaws of peace operations,” said Richard Gowan, research director at the New York University Center on International Cooperation, who is helping to launch later this month the Global Peace Operations Review, a web portal documenting global peacekeeping operations. “But if the U.N. can absorb and implement enough of the panel's ideas, especially around technical issues like rapid deployments of new peacekeeping forces, it will make a big difference overall.”

Gowan added that the panel members "evidently feel that the U.N. can't get away managing current operations with its existing systems."

But while the report acknowledged major limitations in the timeliness of peacekeeping missions and the resources and mandate under which they operate, it also said that the use of peacekeepers must be constrained by a sense of the “primacy of politics" in resolving conflict. 

“Lasting peace is achieved through political solutions and not through military and technical engagements alone,” the summary of the report reads.

Gowan said this insistence on the importance of politics was salient, and that the panel was “warning that you can make all the small policy fixes you like, but they won't matter if you don't have a really clear political strategy to rebuild countries coming out of conflict.”

He said the international community had been chastened, including with the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, on the difficulties of stabilizing weak states.

“The panel has some pretty tough messages for the Security Council,” said Gowan, adding that “ a lot of U.N. officials do feel that the U.S. and other big powers have pushed peace operations too hard without sufficient support in places like South Sudan.”

The panel findings were released the day after the U.N. officially released an internal report, which had been leaked to the media last week and outlined a pattern of sexual abuse and exploitation by U.N. peacekeepers. The report documented a series of sexual abuse allegations, totaling 480 between 2008 and 2013, one-third of which involved minors.

Abuses by U.N. peacekeepers have been a constant source of criticism for the organization, especially since the 1990s when major abuses were found to have occurred during peacekeeping operations undertaken during conflicts in the Balkans. Critics have long said the U.N. has failed to put in place protocols to prevent such widespread abuses.

Despite U.N. efforts in the past decade to reform procedures to prevent sexual abuses, the report released Tuesday acknowledged “the abuses are continuing — to the enduring shame of the Organization and the countries which provide the peacekeepers who abuse.”

Tuesday’s panel findings outlined a series of additional steps which are aimed at preventing abuses by U.N. peacekeepers. “The United Nations should ensure that individual victims of sexual exploitation and abuse are compensated for the harm they suffer from U.N. personnel,” the report said, adding that, “The Secretary-General should report on action taken, and not taken, by individual Member States and the Secretariat.”

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the formation of the panel in November, tasking former East Timor president Jose Ramos-Horta to chair a team of 13 other peacekeeping experts from different countries to conduct the review process.

“The world is changing and U.N. peace operations must change if they are to remain an indispensable and effective tool in promoting international peace and security,” he said at the time.

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